National Immigration Forum

Practical Solutions for Immigrants and America

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When the Extremes Decide

May 12, 2008 - Posted by Maurice Belanger

“The onus is on us if it hits the fan,” one official complained during a high-level headquarters meeting about staff shortages late last summer, according to records of the conversation.  “We’re going to be responsible if something happens, because it’s well documented that we know there’s a problem, that the problem is severe.”

It seems that “it” has hit the fan.  Sunday, The Washington Post opened a series on immigration detention, authored by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Dana Priest and Amy Goldstein, with a page-one story on the medical treatment of immigrants, illustrated with a photo of the white-sheeted corpse of Yusif Osman, a 34-year-old native of Ghana who died after collapsing in his cell in a large immigration prison near San Diego, California.

Many of the immigrants who are now thrown into prison by the thousands are not guilty of anything that most Americans associate with jail time. 

Most are working-class men and women or indigent laborers who made mistakes that seem to pose no threat to national security…

Perhaps they would be better treated if they were. As the Post reporters note, 

The detainees have less access to lawyers than convicted murderers in maximum-security prisons, and some have fewer comforts than al-Qaeda terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

These non-citizen working-class men and women now make up five percent of our workforce.  They may have committed no other crime, or they may have committed a minor crime for which the justice system would mete out only minor punishment for a citizen.

Not so for immigrants.  If caught, they cross a threshold beyond which there seems to be little care for their very lives.

Nurses who work on the front lines see the problems up close.  “Dogs get better care in the dog pound,” said Catherine Rouse, a contract nurse at an Arizona detention center who quit after two months last year because she saw what she regarded as “scary medicine” in the prison: patients taken off medications they needed and nurses doing tasks they were not qualified to do.  “You don’t treat people like that.  There has to be some kind of moral fiber,” Rouse said.

For immigrants with medical problems, the detention system can be deadly.

About 83 detainees have died in, or soon after, custody during the past five years.  The deaths are the loudest alarms about a system teetering on collapse.  Actions taken—or not taken—by medical staff members may have contributed to 30 of those deaths, according to confidential internal reviews and the opinions of medical experts who reviewed some death files for The Post.

The article paints a bleak picture of a Division of Immigration Health Services (DIHS) that is under-staffed and under-prepared.  Yet, properly resourcing this agency to keep pace with a 65 percent increase in detainees since 2003 seems to be a low priority for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)—the agency in charge of jailing non-citizens on immigration charges.

Of the 312 people who applied for new positions over the past year, 200 withdrew…because they found other jobs during the 250 days it took ICE, on average, to conduct the required background investigations.

Coming off a period when it had been run by interim directors, DIHS has a new director,

…who brought with him the credential of having been fired in 2003 by the state of Maryland for bad management and spending practices supervising detention and pretrial services.

Death in immigration prison may be the most extreme symptom of the collapse of the debate on immigration reform.  By failing to enact sensible reforms to update our immigration laws, Congress has given the most extreme voices inordinate influence over immigration policy.  We are taking immigrants away from their families and their American employers and throwing them into jail not necessarily because they are bad people, but because the political system has been paralyzed by extreme voices such as that of “rdar1,” who wrote in commenting on the Post story:

…these cynical lawbreaking invaders should not be in prison.  They should be deported with a shoot-to-kill order if they return.

Although a bill directed at correcting egregious behavior regarding the medical treatment of immigrants in detention has been introduced in the House, and is being introduced today in the Senate, the real issue is the failure of our political leaders to address the larger problem—that of our broken immigration system.

The Washington Post series can be obtained here as the stories become available. The New York Times recently ran a story on the issue, and we commented on that story, and the issue, in our policy update.

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